Study Hacks Blog

Thinkspot and the Rise of Long Tail Social Media

July 15th, 2019 · 68 comments

Last month, Jordan Peterson announced he was launching his own social media platform called Thinkspot. Details of the planned service are still sketchy, but it seems like it will include some novel features, such as subscription fees that support the content creators, and a commenting system meant to encourage deeper discussion.

Much of the early press coverage of Thinkspot has focused on the controversies surrounding Peterson and the tumultuous circumstances that led to the service’s creation.

To me, however, there’s a more interesting story lurking. What matters is not why Thinkspot exists, or even whether it will succeed, but instead the larger trend it represents.

The first generation of social media companies adopted a mass audience model: their value proposition depended on gathering the largest possible user base. You joined Facebook, in part, because of the promise that many people you already know were members, and you browsed YouTube because of the promise that it could offer an endless library of clips.

This model naturally supports monopoly and suppresses innovation. It’s conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley that a big reason why there have been no major social media platforms launched since 2011 is that it’s impossible for a new entrant to compete with the value produced by the massive audiences of the existing sites.

Why would I join a network with 10,000 users when one already exists with over 1,000,000,000?

As Thinkspot demonstrates, however, this mass audience strategy is starting to fray. As users become more familiar with both the joys and depredations of the attention economy, they’re increasingly shifting toward a long tail model for the social internet.

In this new model, users don’t want to connect with everyone they already know, but instead want to connect with small groups they find really interesting. Similarly, they don’t need access to massive libraries of low-quality content, but instead want access to curated collections covering topics they really care about.

The old model requires massive audiences before a given platform becomes useful. The new model does not.

If you’re deeply committed to the Intellectual Dark Web, for example, then Thinkspot will probably return you much more value than Instagram or Twitter, even though its audience size is a minuscule fraction of these giants.

Similar micro-platforms could be created for almost any other targeted interest that you can imagine, from paleo enthusiasts, to the FIRE community, to cricket fans, to Christian parents.

(See my recent New Yorker article on indie social media for more on some of the new tools that simplify the task of creating these new platforms.)

Put another way: In the world of long tail social media, network effects are much less important than interesting networks.

The internet, of course, has long been home to small communities dedicated to niche topics, organizing themselves through loose collections of websites, blogs, and existing social platforms.

The key insight of long tail social media — as epitomized by Thinkspot — is that there’s value in creating more unified and optimized online homes for these small communities: reducing the friction required for interaction and increasing its quality; yet also sidestepping the mass audience model’s imperative to grow your service as big as possible.

I’m not sure if this long tail model will successfully supplant the mass audience strategy that dominates today (any time there are hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, disruption is complicated). I hope, however, that it does, as it would almost certainly increase the value people get out of the internet, while helping to reduce some of the worst side-effects of our current dependence on rapacious platform monopolies.

68 thoughts on “Thinkspot and the Rise of Long Tail Social Media

  1. George says:

    Hurrah for Thinkspot and may they thrive. I’m reminded of when I subscribed to a listserv for ultramarathon runners. It was wonderful – very focused discussions on topics that affected us all. I could ask how to fix an ankle sprain and receive helpful answers from athletes, some of them very high-level competitors, around the world.

    Surely it would be healing to create tightly focused “social media.”

  2. Tricia says:

    Just yesterday I joined a small private social network focused on knitting. Really looking forward to getting to know the folks there. I think “indie” social media has great potential.

  3. DM says:

    O man, Cal. I don’t know if you can cite such a controversial figure neutrally. I know you strive to keep things very politically neutral, which is challenging when you talk about social media, but it’s hard to discuss the “connect with small groups they find really interesting” without the context of the fracturing of our social sphere and radicalization of online communities (including the young men that J.Peterson speaks to). I’ve been following you for a decade+ and pre-order your books. I am disappointed in your approach on this post; it would be better if you can cite other examples to make your point or acknowledge the (arguably moral) context of the sample you site.

    1. T says:

      Peterson encourages young men to find purpose and take personal responsibility.

      There might be valid criticisms of his work but he’s nowhere near ‘far right’ or a Nazi apologist. The inability of posters condemning him here to identify a concrete transgression (low effort mud-slinging and guilt by association don’t count, obviously) on his part is striking.

      Less hysteria please.

      1. Eklavya says:

        Thanks T, was going to offer the same defense for Perterson. The reflexive ad hominem (with no substantive evidence provided) against figures like him is a big reason mass/ anonymous social media is so polarizing.

        1. JD says:

          Dont apologize for Petersons views! Its not illegal to platform far right views, he is doing nothing wrong! Look at what has become of us, were acting like this just because we are afraid to acknowledge that we agree with his political views!! We cant let the liberals win like this. Look at the left! They are not afraid to stand behind their views (AOC and Omar), and Trump is addressing that! rightfully!

          1. Mel says:

            You seem to think that “freedom of speech” means “freedom from criticism”. I don’t see anyone claiming that this platform is going to break any laws.

            “Its not illegal to platform far right views, he is doing nothing wrong!”

            This is completely nonsensical. It is not illegal to be rude or cheat on your wife. But these actions are still generally wrong, and very much worthy of criticism.

        2. Jim Jones says:

          Trump told an American congresswoman to “go back to her country”, which is inherently racist. There’s nothing rightful about that. If you want to have a debate, have one without resorting to racist attacks.

          1. Carey says:

            He also said they should “then come back and show us how it’s done”. Is that also “inherently racist”?

          2. Robert Gabriel says:

            Pres. Trump said that to a congresswoman who obvious hates virtually every foundation of this country. Would you take advice on how to run your city from the mayor of crime-infested Chicago?

          3. Jonathan says:

            Note the replies (parallel to this one) defending Trump. Telling isn’t it? What side do you want to be on?

      2. amanda says:

        Agreed.

      3. Anonymous says:

        In my opinion, Jordan Peterson is a bully. Ironically, most of his audience are men who as boys probably suffered bullying (due to being shy, introverted, etc.). Somehow, Peterson manipulates them into loving him, another bully, and into hating random targets like women and racial minorities. His “philosophy” is incoherent, hodge-podge and poorly developed. The aspects of it that may function somewhat are cadged from Behavioural Activation Therapy, but repackaged as both self- and other-directed hate. The people following his advice would be better off reading/receiving proper therapy. And if you insist on the puerile belief that cleaning your room (or any other action) is a panacea for all ills, may I direct you to Marie Kondo?

        1. Jan Exum says:

          Who is he bullying?

        2. Karl Malone says:

          Your criticism of Peterson’s ideas is so clearly low resolution and lacking logical coherence, that it suggests either profound lack of openness/intelligence/ability to think analytically, or outright lack of familiarity with his ideas.

      4. Rid says:

        I was going to chime in with the same. People are so used to just slamming other people’s work they don’t understand their own role in creating such a negative atmosphere we’re living in nowadays.
        I listen to Jordan Peterson lectures and I appreciate it that he is helping young people take personal responsibility in their lives. And I am by no means a right winger.

    2. Jim Jones says:

      Completely agree. Peterson himself might not be a Nazi, but the people who he associates with skirt the boundary very closely. The creation of TS itself was spurred by white supremecists being kicked off from Patreon. Peterson came to their defense and this is his attempt to create an “anti-censorship” platform where hate speech can be openly welcome. The “Intellectual Dark Web” itself seems like a gateway towards radicalization. Having “Dark Web” in the name of your movement should be a giant red flag itself.

      In an age where alt-right radicalization and violence is on the rise, legitimizing these platforms is playing with fire. I generally like the content of this blog, but I found this post to be somewhat upsetting.

      1. Liz says:

        Same here. It sucks to see this kinda garbage on this blog. There’s nothing even insightful in Cal’s article. Summary: a guy got kicked off Patreon for not following the TOS and is now starting his own social media platform. Uh, what? This might as well be a paid ad for Thinkspot. What does this have to do with digital minimalism? Not even a rhetorical question, I have no idea why I read this.

    3. J says:

      Thank you for saying this. It was really jarring to read this article and see “Intellectual Dark Web” casually referred to as if it’s just another interest someone might have, rather than a reactionary movement to amplify Nazi and ultra-right ideology. I assumed that this blog is written with a broad readership in mind, but dashing this off as a “neutral” reference makes it feel like maybe the imagined audience is specifically white men?

      1. Joe says:

        Character assassination/mud slinging and a blatantly racist comment against white men. Kudos on zero substance and all vitriol.

  4. Carmel Gafa says:

    I found Jordan Peterson’s admission that he was addicted to twitter rather interesting

    https://sputniknews.com/world/201907151076251888-jordan-peterson-twitter-addiction/

    I think his initial scepticism regarding the side effects of social media is now re-dimensioned so maybe that can be reflected in Thinkspot? Time will tell I guess…

  5. J. E. says:

    Jordan Peterson is a Nazi apologist, there’s a myriad of other examples of niche social networks you could have chosen to write your blog post.
    I’m a big fan of yours Cal, please, since you have such a big audience, you can’t normalize such controversial figures.

    1. K says:

      If I may borrow Eklavya’s reply to another post above, this seems a “reflexive ad hominem (with no substantive evidence provided)” post. Please provide a quote from Jordon Peterson himself – taken in context – to prove your point. I have seen no evidence in the posts so far and I have listened to several of his talks and can’t find any evidence to support your claim. As “T” above points out, sure there might be valid criticisms, but they are a far cry from the “Nazi apologist” comment. This amounts to name calling rather than substantive discussion.

    2. Joe says:

      At what point do you realize your comment is the same kind of all or nothing, anti-evidence that is the hallmark of social media? I’m not a Peterson fan, but to summarily dismiss his influence with lazy, unproven charges of being a Nazi diminishes anything meaningful you might say.

    3. Tim Hildebrand says:

      “A nazi apologist”? I would really like to see some documentation of that. Peterson’s beliefs about free speech arise out of a long study of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century and a complete (and extremely well-articulated) repudiation of those ideologies, and their underlying causes. He’s the furthest thing from a nazi. This type of mud-slinging does nothing to raise the debate.

      1. Jonathan says:

        ITT people bring up that fact that Peterson is controversial and that by featuring him neutrally Cal risks signalling support. Then people come to Peterson’s defence. Some defenders are overtly “anti-lib”, others defenders are just experts on what Jordan Peterson has said. Both groups of defenders see no issues with what Peterson says. Internet fighting erupts.

  6. SI says:

    Not sure how Thinkspot, which will gather like-minded people of interest, prevents the echo chamber (group think) problem – unless you intentionally join a group that is opposite of what you think and believe and try to understand opposing points of view.

    1. Holly says:

      I was thinking the same thing. Wouldn’t platforms like this just further entrench users? I don’t see how this is better or more useful than any other form of social media.

      1. Bob Monkhouse says:

        The main benefit being both sides of an argument get to speak. One mans incorrect assumption and accusations of hate speech is another mans valid criticism of something he sees that’s wrong and vice versa and neither you or I have the right to claim to be the arbitrator.

        1. Sam H says:

          Both sides may “get to” speak, but only one side will actually speak and be heard.

          These communities are all about cultivating a personal echo chamber. Even on non-political topics, communities like this end up settling on a “right way” of doing things and shout down new voices with different ideas, scaring them away never to return.

          And if you’ve ever actually paid attention to Peterson’s bad-faith argumentation, you’d know that’s exactly what he’s after. I’d bet big money that if his personal social network ever became large-majority liberal, he’d shut it down and start a new one.

        2. Cory Barnes says:

          Yet here I am reading uncensored views from the right wing. There’s no shortage of that whining noise. Faux news broadcasts their vapid talking points, most of them provably false, 24/7.
          Peterson’s deceptive characterization of the Canadian anti bullying laws turned me off of him. If we’re such a free speech quashing Leninist society then why hasn’t he faced charges? His whole argument was a straw man born of a personal clash with a college. Then he turns it into politics.
          Then he starts into the climate models, which when pressed to explain, it becomes clear he knows nothing about. He claims it’s all political. That’s easily proved false. He’s the one making it political. He claims to be rational and scientific. He’s an emotional conspiracy theorist and little else.

  7. maurice says:

    I’m seconding DM’s comment. What’s next Cal? I’m really looking forward to the productivity lessons we can learn from other far right controversial figures. David Duke could teach us a little bit about secret social gatherings outside of social media where all attendants are dressed in white robes!

    1. David Smith says:

      “Oh no, a person whose political opinions I disagree with – I can’t possibly learn anything from what he’s doing.”

      1. Jonathan says:

        You ever read the great book “Train Scheduling” by Adolf Hitler. Great read. Anyways, people don’t disagree with Peterson politically, they disagree with him philosophically and morally. Especially the attack on progress many of his supporters perpetrate. (SPOILER ALERT) Appeasement didn’t work with the Nazis, and thus finding ourselves battling fascism again, we can’t disregard what side of the culture war somebody is on.

    2. Hunter says:

      Personally I love Peterson and have watched all his video’s.youre right in implying that this platform exists because JP got banned from regular channels due to his views. But Cal is right in looking what we can learn from Peterson. It is important to make clear that there is nothing wrong with sexist and racist views (go watch some of his videos he makes great arguments) and we can learn a lot from creative people who find ways to keep broadcasting their opinions after being banned from devilish platforms like Patreon.

      1. David says:

        You might want to go back and watch more of Peterson’s videos if “there is nothing wrong with sexist and racist views” was your main takeaway.

        Peterson talks about trends between men and women having certain differences in temperament which lead to differences in occupation when left free to make their own determination. The only time he specifically addresses race is when someone trying to get him to corroborate their national separatist views in a Q&A and he talks about and why Ashkenazi Jews have a higher IQ on average and what averages mean when talking about genetic traits.

        Again, I think you are confused if you have watched all 400+ hours of Peterson’s YouTube videos and saw his nuanced meditations as a blanket support of racism/sexism. You can do better than that. Be precise in your speech and tell the truth.

        1. Jonathan says:

          TFW somebody on the same side of the argument as you let’s slip that they’re an awful person with a repugnant moral philosophy, amirite?

      2. R. Jackson says:

        JP left Patreon because of their PC banning of someone else, a principled stance that he and others have taken. TS is a response to PC censorship.

    3. Tim Hildebrand says:

      Comparing Peterson to David Duke is simply ridiculous. His in-depth study of the totalitarian regimes in the 20th century is what informs his strong views against them, and thus the importance of free speech. His videos not only contain the most articulate repudiations of racist ideologies I’ve ever heard, but also an extremely well thought out remedy to their underlying causes. Any calm-minded person taking in his speeches will recognize a skilled rhetorical adversary to white supremacy. Accusing Jordan Peterson of racism is to accuse yourself of an unexamined life.

      Be better than this.

      1. Jonathan says:

        When you’re on the same side of an argument as all (or just most?) of the Nazis, talking about an opponent’s post as evidence of an un-examined life is wonderfully (or tragically?) ironic.

  8. Nate says:

    I don’t always support the points of the blog posts here but the comment section here is so ironic. Cal who seems to support free thought and open discussion is getting bombarded with a sort of ‘group think’ comment section where everyone is telling him the examples he is using aren’t worthy or good enough. You are all proving his points. The internet and excess use of digital communities is supporting this idea of self worth that isn’t even real. This blog is his. Whether you agree with it or not doesn’t matter. It’s not about how ‘good’ his examples are. He has the right to write whatever he wants (within reason).

    1. Jim Jones says:

      Did anyone say otherwise? Did someone threaten to call the police? Cal is free to write what he wants and everyone else is free to express their opinion.

  9. Hank says:

    I applaud Cal for choosing Jordan Peterson as an example in his post today.

  10. Melissa says:

    Micro-platforms and niche communities are growing. Mighty Networks is a platform many are using (including myself) for this purpose. It working for the very reasons you stated higher quality content and conversations.

  11. Eric says:

    I think the micro-platforms could be very interesting. The audience of millions is exactly one of the many things that disgusts me about social media.

    I find the hatred for JP on these comments to be ironic at best. I have read his book and have listened to several of his long-form interviews. I hear from others that JP is sexist, racist, far-right, and a Nazi apologist. I have never made the same conclusion myself. Perhaps it is because I only looked at primary source material? I don’t have a facebook or twitter account, so I don’t know what the anti-JP arguments are…perhaps that is why I’m not seeing the hatred.

  12. Maria says:

    A great example to reference is the private network Seth Godin has created for the Akimbo workshops alumni. It’s called Forward Link and it’s a great platform to foster learning, deep conversations and generous collaboration.

  13. Cal fails to realize that people on Facebook narrow down their feed to shared interests too.

    1. Joe says:

      They should, but they really don’t. The smart users do, but those are the ones who aren’t spending 3-4 hours or more on the service every day. I’m astonished to see how people I know use things like FB, which just further cements my desire to not use it ever. It also takes plugins/extensions/divine intervention to keep it from trying to interfere with you over and over again.

  14. Michael says:

    People who call Peterson a nazi don’t know much about national socialism, he is a positive force in the free speech movement.

    1. Jonathan says:

      “National Socialism”? You can’t know much about Nazism or Socialism if you call it that. That term was meant be inaccurate, and using it today is meant to connect Fascism and Socialism, two political philosophies at loggerheads. The only proponents of conflating the two that you’ll find are generally a narrow group who also happen to include many Peterson fans.

      And “the free speech” movement is pretty dog-whistle-y. Free speech is tenant of Human Rights, but it’s also dog-whistle used those who oppose egalitarian Human Rights, most commonly racists and fascists. And in this case, when so many racists and fascists are Peterson fans, the term “free speech” has the potential to be loaded. Thus, it would be better to say “Human Rights”. But I don’t know if Peterson is a positive force in the human rights movement, considering that he’s a favourite author of those who work too roll back human rights. So, it was a dog-whistle?

  15. Doug says:

    The venom above directed at Peterson is vicious, ignorant, lazy, and the opposite of the truth. I have read both his books and listened to many of his podcasts. He is possibly the most insightful, constructive, balanced, relevant, and scintillating figure in our public intellectual life today.

    If your thing is Marxism or identity politics, he is your most cogent critic. If you disagree with him, don’t slander him with cheap, cliched lies. Engage in discussion on the same positive and sophisticated terms as he does.

    I respect Cal’s courage in using this example. Alas, the response was utterly predictable.

    1. Jonathan says:

      If I were to ask to “Why do people dislike Peterson?” I doubt you could give a well-informed answer—I doubt you understand the opposition to his ideas. Consider that a challenge. If you were in a school debate and the side you happened to be assigned to* was tasked with presenting the opposition to Peterson, could you do that? That is a true test of knowledge. If you can provide a convincing argument against what you believe, then you can demonstrate that what you believe was arrived at not from a lack of knowledge on the topic, but rather from an informed assessment of the opposing views. If that’s not the case you merely sound like a simpleton who was seduced and has since turned to zealotry.

      * because that’s how such debates work, and for very good reason (look it up)

      1. Liz says:

        Since you seem to know about it best Jonathan, how about you show us how it’s done, debating FOR JP?

        p.s.The Nazi Party’s full name was the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (https://www.britannica.com/story/were-the-nazis-socialists)

  16. Chelsey T says:

    Interesting. I’m torn on this idea. I think it’s helpful for individuals living in smaller communities without the resources of a bigger city to be able to connect online with like minded people. However, as someone who read Digital Minimalism and is getting off social media, I would rather see these groups connect offline and in the real world. I know my local library has a wide variety of groups who meet in the evenings for various activities like knitting, gaming, building computers, programming, etc.

  17. Mike Anderson says:

    For activities such as knitting, gaming, building computers, and even programming (depending on the popularity of the language) it may feasible to meet up locally, and I too would prefer that. But participants for the level of discussion typical of Jordan Peterson and the Intellectual Dark Web are uncommon, and very “long tail.” Perhaps there are more out there than I perceive, but they tend to be high-functioning and busy, and so are even more in need of a time-efficient means of collaboration such as Thinkspot may provide.

  18. Grug says:

    Isn’t this already around with reddit? If I want to join a micro-community, I can subscribe to that sub-reddit.

  19. Varun Panicker says:

    Sorry, I’m totally lost here. What are the controversies that Mr. Peterson is being linked to?

    1. Jonathan says:

      He’s not being connected with a controversy—he IS controversial. Try searching online to learn more.

  20. Geoff says:

    I’m pretty disappointed in this comment thread actually.

    Isn’t anything sacred anymore?

    What obligation does Cal have to comment on the ‘moral’ significance of the cited medium?

    That would be completely off-topic, much like the majority of comments in this thread.

    1. D says:

      The medium is a de facto moral and political medium. It’s nonsensical to use it as an example and try to extract some sort of nonpolitical point. Literally the whole point of the medium is its politics. Just use another example. Really isn’t that complicated.

  21. Ben says:

    Cal, thanks for presenting your thoughts on this topic – and this platform – in a neutral matter. This gives me hope that your future books will continue to provide truth and not be beholden to ideology.

    1. Molly says:

      Thank you! Well put. The fact that any number of networks could have been named means that they are not the point, but simply an illustration of the point. We all need to go back to Debate 101 and middle school English class where it is taught how to make and support an argument.

  22. Alan Duncan says:

    Personally, I would ignore the reference to Jordan Peterson but for the fact that in Newport’s recent book “Deep Work”, he gives William Shockley a similar neutral treatment. Shockley, one of the inventors of the transistor, turned out to be a loathsome racist and eugenicist. Dr. Newport brings up Shockley’s work history in a discussion about deep work habits. While I understand that in theory, one’s work practices can be separated from one’s personal beliefs, Shockley’s heinous beliefs about racial superiority should be disqualifying. Find another example. There are plenty of ethical individuals who have superb work habits and who would be better examples.

    1. Joe says:

      I can’t imagine being so intellectually lazy that you don’t/won’t learn from everyone. One of the greatest achievements in wartime planning was the Prussian wargame Kriegsspiel. It was light years ahead of their contemporaries, and remained so prevalent that it gave the German armies of WWI and WWII huge outsized results compared to their size and weaponry. It was such a successful approach that the US Navy adopted the approach and in the mid 1930s identified Pearl Harbor as a vulnerable location for an airstrike. Unfortunately, with the Great Recession still ongoing, nothing was done to rectify the situation. If we had learned from one of the most heinous regimes in history, and implemented what we learned from them, one of the greatest attacks on the US could have been either prevented or significantly reduced.

      But, lets just live in a world where learning from everyone is taboo for no good reason. That seems to be the unfortunate majority sentiment in the comment section.

      1. Molly says:

        Agreed. I like your assessment of intellectual laziness.

  23. Phollo Yeffen says:

    List the ways censorship will be obfuscated when agenda steps up into both directions of discourse? That’s what this is about…07/28/2019

    [the floaters.-_-.float on]
    Dr. Peterson could double his audience with.news.moves…

    Ecological space and cognitive geometry:

    (synchrony freespot)

    Our collective cognition (conscious) in (linguistic) meaning is literally ensconced in the quantum wave function by time, our corporeal entrainment… all the way down the phylogenetic chain…o.-

    44:24
    2015 Personality Lecture 08: Depth Psychology: Sigmund Freud (Part 1)
    Power Online: The internet as a discourse

    John M Smart – A.I., “Inner Space,” and Accelerating Change – YouTube

  24. Jess Duda says:

    I’ve been a part of the Tech Lady Mafia google listserv since 2012 and it’s been very useful to me regarding career networking – far more than Linkedin. I know of a film editor who managed a yahoo listserv for women in film and when she moved it to a website to add more functionality, it killed the group.

  25. Valerii says:

    Absolutely agreeing with the idea of benefits of small common-interest-based platforms, neveretheless have to argue on the assertion that this kind of stuff is something new. These platforms have already existed more than ten years ago and been called ‘forums’! For instance, look at the Aquatic Plant Central, devoted to the aquariumistics. I’ve been browsing it prety frequently since 2007.
    The example of such a sort of sites revealed an interesting problem. If someone is joining a particular community there could be some other platforms sharing similar subject. Should this person follow all of them in order not to miss something?

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